Independent interview: "Like Clockwork"
Friday, 20 October 2017
A little while ago David Barrett interviewed me prior to writing this article for the Independent: "Like Clockwork: An unfinished Anthony Burgess script is about to be published" [Monday 28 August 2017]. You can read the article at that link, but there was quite a lot that came out of our chat that he wasn't able to use. So, with his permission I'm posting the original Q & A.
1. How long have you been a Burgess fan/reader. I've been reading Burgess all my reading life. You have to bear in mind that in the late 70s and early 80s, when I was a teenager and reading voraciously, he was everywhere -- so for example he was the most frequently re-booked guest on the BBC's Parkinson, his reviews were in the Sunday papers, when Earthly Powers lost out -- a total injustice, it must be said -- to Golding's Rites of Passage in the 1980 Booker it was reported on all the news channels. I knew even back then that I was always going to be Team Burgess rather than Team Golding. Not that there's anything wrong with Golding; but Burgess has a range and fizzing energy, a bravura insistence that high art can be commercial and readable that makes him, for me, much the more exciting writer.
When the Black Prince project got up and running I prepared for it by re-reading the whole run of Burgess's fiction in chronological order, which was an amazing experience. It really brought home to me not just his variety and energy but his consistency.
2. How did you find out about Black Prince? I happened to be browsing the archive of old Paris Review 'Art of Fiction' interviews, and came across the one the magazine conducted with Burgess from 1972. He says there that he was working on a medieval historical novel written in the style of Dos Passos. I was immediately intrigued -- such an audacious conceit! In the interview he says he had about 80 pages or so written. I became very curious to see what that material looked like.
3) At what point did you think “I’m going to write this into a novel?” My intitial thought was that if Burgess had managed to pull together a substantial-enough portion of the novel, it might be possible just to cap it off at the end and so bring a 'new' Burgess novel into the light. And that seemed to me a pretty exciting proposition. So I got in touch with Andrew Biswell, who heads up the Burgess Institute in Manchester and is the world's premier Burgess scholar. He told me that Burgess had written an entire screenplay based on this material (it was never filmed), but had left no prose relicts or notes or anything. So at that point the prospect shifted about: I would have to write the whole novel, in accordance to Burgess's initial brief and using as much of the screenplay as possible. I wasn't sure about that, but Andrew sent me a copy of the screenplay and reading through it the idea rooted deeper and deeper in my imagination. So I ended up doing it.
4) Did you have any qualms about taking it on? Qualms is a good word, isn't it? Burgess, who loved words and their histories, would have been intrigued by it, I think. The etymologists don't know whence it comes. It might, they say, derive from the Old English cwealm, which means 'death, disaster, sickness'; or perhaps it might be related to the German Qualm, which means 'smoke, fumes'. So which is it to be? Death? Or a smoke?
The short answer is: yes. He's a major British novelist, and I was trying to do him justice, stay true to his style and ethos, to play fair by him. It's a big ask. The technical challenge was quite specific really: I needed to write a prose that captured the flavour of Burgess capturing the flavour of Dos Passos, which meant smoking the kippers of my chapters (as it were) in the penetrating fumes of real Burgess:---hence my reading his entire backlist. But there was a real danger the whole would be a disaster, a sort of death. I hope that's not how it's turned out, obviously. My judgement is hardly objective, but I think it works. I'd say there's a tiger in this smoke.
5) Are you trying to get into Burgess’s head? Is this pastiche? Or is this an Adam Roberts novel? It is an Adam Roberts novel, but one based on a Burgess idea, incorporating as much actual Burgess as I could, and one that is as true to Anthony Burgess as I could possibly make it. I hope that doesn't read as me being evasive ... I really did live and breathe Burgess for the whole period of my writing this, and I hope very much that has come through in the finished result.
6) You are, as they say, “traditionally published’, with your latest novel out this week. Any thoughts on the Unbound model of publishing generally? Publishing as a whole is going through a challenging time: the rise of e-books, and the proliferation of self-pub and other modes of publication, has thrown the old business model somewhat into disarray. Speaking as an author I still value all the things a proper publisher can add to what I do, and as a reader I still trust proper publishers as gatekeepers. I'm very happy at Gollancz; The Real-Town Murders is my sixteenth novel with them. But Unbound are a proper publisher too, albeit one with a different business model: soliciting pledges before publication to cover the costs of actually editing and publishing the book. This is the first time I've worked with them, and it'll be interesting to see in the longer term how far this becomes the new paradigm of publishing. In some ways its a reversion to a much older model: the eighteenth- and early-nineteenth century model for publishing a book was to attract a list of subscribers, or patrons, who would put the money down to make the book happen. Conceivably there will be a shift back to that model in a broader sense. We're living, as the phrase goes, through Interesting Times.
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